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[SANET-MG] the new slavery
http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GFTNSL.phpISIS Press Release 14/12/05
Global Food Trade & the New Slave Labour
How globalisation links UK’s Tesco supermarket chain to colonial-style
farming in South Africa that exploits farm-workers especially women and
perpetrates poverty. Samantha Burcher
A fully referenced version of this paper is posted on ISIS members’
website. Details here
Colonial farmers call the shots
Fatima Shabodien is executive director of Women on Farms Project. She
came to London’s City Hall on a foggy day to describe the impact of
trade, the export of food, and the changes on South African farmlands
over the past ten years. When people think of South African farms they
think of subsistence farming, she said. But the reality is predominantly
commercial farming, colonial farms owned by white males and leased to a
pool of black workers .
There are new laws in a democratic South Africa for working in
agriculture. But before 1994, no laws existed to protect relationships
between farmers and farm workers. Despite this, women are forced into
feudal labour practices by implication. When a white farmer contracts a
male labourer, his wife or girlfriend is expected to work for the farmer
too. A farmwoman is paid less for her work than men and discriminated
against as to the sort of work she can do. She is further bound to her
man because on-farm housing is tied to labour; therefore women can only
be housed if they work. No housing contracts are given to farmwomen on
WTO encourages unequal trade
Since the WTO introduced subsidies for farmers, things have become even
worse for both male and female workers. Farmers have drastically cut
back on agricultural employment and even forcibly evicted workers to
avoid giving them tenure rights to land. What were once permanent jobs
have now become seasonal, and these precarious positions mainly occupied
by women (see Box). Because the jobs are casual, there are no provisions
for benefits such as maternity pay and sick leave, nor protective
clothing from pesticides as there would have been under the usual
South Africa’s commercial agriculture is export oriented, and is fragile
as it is open to challenges from the global market and the progressive
removal of trade barriers and subsidies. Increased competition and
unfair terms of trade with highly subsidised producers in the North,
along with other factors such as drought, exacerbate poor pay and
working conditions, leading to poor health for farm workers.
Unequal trade regimes reinforce inequality for women and for emerging
black farmers who are unable to compete with white farmers on economic
Wages paid in wine
Western Cape farmers pay labourers in part or in full with alcohol. This
is known as the “tot system”, a common practice left over from slavery.
A steady stream of alcohol is given to the workers throughout the day.
Not too much to make them drunk, but enough to make them dependent.
There is a legacy of alcoholism and violence around colonial style
farming. Farmwomen are encouraged to drink throughout their pregnancies,
and the wine regions of the Western Cape has the highest incidence of
foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). There is no concept of leisure for farm
workers, so alcohol also serves a recreational purpose. This puts
farmwomen and their children in high- risk situations from violence and
One widow’s story
Gertruida Baartman is a widow with four children and an extended family
to support. She works for six months of the year on a fruit-exporting
farm in the Ceres district in the Western Cape region of South Africa.
She picks, prunes and packs apples for Tesco’s supermarkets in the UK
for £3.90 a day. It’s a struggle for her to feed the family, to pay for
school fees, books and uniforms. Her family subsist on a bread and
“Gertruida is ashamed of her struggle, her dignity is gone,” said
Fatima, “and she cannot make direct eye contact with people.” Her work
is fairly isolated so she experiences none of the camaraderie or
solidarity of factory workers, or a union. In her mind, she has failed
According to the National Union of Farmers of Canada, rural women
comprise one quarter of the world’s population . And in some parts of
Africa, women head 60 percent of households, where they meet almost all
of the water and fuel needs and process all of the family’s foodstuffs.
Actionaid sent a team of investigators to the Western Cape to audit
Tesco’s fruit farms. (See Rotten Fruit. Tesco profits as women workers
pay a high price
Together with Women on Farms Project, they focussed on the conditions of
the seasonal women packers, and were shocked by the violations against
these workers which include lower than the minimum wage (and men’s
wages), dismal housing, job insecurity, food insecurity, and no benefits
such as paid maternity and sick leave.
No protection against pesticides
Conditions on colonial farms are generally poor and the standard is
worse for women. When farm inspectors are due to call, the portable
toilets are put in the fields and overalls, gloves and shoes are given
to the women. As soon as the inspectors are gone, the vestments and
toilets are taken away again.
Women workers claim they were given no protection against pesticide
spraying and told to pick fruit from trees still wet with chemicals.
Tesco refutes the claim by saying that the women Actionaid interviewed
were confused. They deny that those women worked for farms exporting to
Tesco. And as far as pesticides are concerned, women workers were
picking apples sprayed with water.
Women on Farms Project have defended the women taking part in
Actionaid’s audit, by saying that they may not have a sophisticated
world view, but they know what water is and are fully aware that their
apples are put into boxes clearly marked Tesco! While Fatima was in
London she visited Tesco supermarkets to photograph the green Cape
apples on the shelves, so the farmwomen in South Africa can see whom
they work for, and what Tesco is.
What farmwomen want
What Women on Farms Project want is for Tesco to be honest about their
dealings with the farmwomen. The farmwomen don’t want a boycott of
Tesco, they need to hold onto their jobs. They are scared that if they
push too much for their rights, they will lose a valuable export
contract. So despite the harsh conditions, the inequalities, and the
deceptions, women on South African farms want what women all over the
world want, and that is to provide for their families.
Women on Farms Project are helping women in rural areas to build their
capacity to claim their rights and fulfil their needs. But there are
obstacles to organisation at even very basic levels because of
patriarchal codes. Although unionisation in agriculture has been legal
since 1993, farm workers are the least organised labour sector with the
lowest percentage of unionised workers.
There are good post-apartheid national laws designed to protect all farm
labourers, but they were founded on a corporate model of labour that
never filtered down to farmwoman or migrant worker level. Nevertheless,
Fatima’s project has successfully established a member- based
organisation for farmwomen (also open to men) to build collective
solidarity. It has 3 000 members and was publicly launched on National
Women’s Day (South Africa) this year.
Another strategy for alleviating exploitative trade regimes might be for
South African farmwomen organisations to partner with other labourers
organisations involved in fruit and wine exporting countries in the
south, such as Chile.
Tesco supports the Ethical Trading Initiative baseline code, but
tactical buying practices like “just-in-time” orders that create last
minute price wars between suppliers have encouraged farmers to further
exploit workers by shunting the costs and risks onto them. However, as
Fatima points out, there is no evidence to suggest that workers would
receive any better treatment without these economic pressures.
Thus, farmwomen are at the mercy of Tesco, whose directors they say,
“must ensure that they take account of the likely consequences of any
decisions on the interests of employees, suppliers, communities and the
environment” in the workings of foreign direct investment. And if they
don’t, then it becomes the duty of governments, in the interests of
global democracy, to regulate the behaviour of the transnational
corporations to provide decent working and living standards for
UN reports less stable jobs for women
According to the UN Development Fund For Women (UNIFEM) report, Progress
of the World’s Women 2005: Women, Work and Poverty, in developing
countries informal labour accounts for 50-80 percent of all
non-agricultural employment, and when agricultural workers are added in
the figure is even greater. Women who receive a pittance for insecure
employment predominantly populate this informal workforce. Cases are
reported of women working 18 hours a day for wages that are insufficient
to feed their families. The report links poverty with gender inequality
and unless attention is paid to strengthening women’s economic security,
poverty cannot be eradicated .
The UN Charter for Global Democracy, 12 Areas for Urgent Action, further
highlights the regulation of corporations in the workplace. Point 2
states that transnationals must “adhere to an international code of
conduct covering agreed principles concerning human rights, the
environment and core labour standards.”
Via Campesina, an international peasants group, supports rural women,
and gender parity, and have called for the removal of agriculture
negotiations from the WTO .
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